How to Make our Conversations about Teaching More Productive

Professors chatting in library.

Where do your new ideas about teaching and learning come from? Perhaps some come from Faculty Focus and this blog? We certainly hope so! But most college teachers don’t get instructional ideas from the literature. They get them from other teachers, usually in face-to-face or electronic exchanges. Interesting, isn’t it, how much pedagogical information is passed on and around in these very informal ways.

Teaching Professor Blog If we’re learning to teach and growing instructionally through conversations with each other, that makes it appropriate to ask: What are we learning from each other? Techniques? Good strategies? Solutions to problems? Shortcuts and quick fixes? Is that all we could be learning from these conversations? Asked a different way, what would make these conversations better? What could help them promote, motivate, and sustain our growth as teachers?

Over the years, I’ve tended to be pretty critical of how we talk about teaching. Here’s a quick rundown of what I think compromises the quality of those conversations:

  • They’re often too ad hoc. They occur without planning. Two faculty members meet at the departmental coffee pot and start talking about excused and unexcused absences. They haven’t prepared for the conversation. They share what they think and advocate for the way they handle the issue.
  • The talk focuses on anecdotes and experiences. Like students who come to class not having done the reading, conversations about teaching are about what’s going on in our individual teaching worlds: “Guess what happened in my classroom and here’s what I did about it.” Granted, there’s wisdom that derives from practice and others can learn from it, but that’s not an automatic outcome and it shouldn’t be what we usually talk about.
  • The quality of pedagogical opinions is uneven. All teachers have opinions and all opinions merit a respectful listen, but not all opinions are good, correct, appropriate, or universally applicable. Moreover, many pedagogical opinions are presented with more conviction than evidence.

Here are some changes that I believe would make our teaching conversations better and more productive:

  • Questions should play a central role in our conversations about teaching. We should bring more questions than answers to the conversations. They may be the questions we are asking ourselves, the ones we can’t answer, or the questions for which we’d love to have a collection of potential answers. Questions drive learning! They make us look at what we know and uncover what we don’t know. They cause us to seek out what others know and lead us to the next (and often) better questions. Our conversations would improve if we asked more and answered less.
  • Our conversations need to move beyond techniques. In the beginning, the what-to-do and how-to-do-it focus is essential, and teachers should always be on the lookout for good techniques. But by mid-career, it’s time to explore why—why are we using that policy, why does that activity work in some courses but not others, why won’t students accept the responsibility for learning, why doesn’t our feedback make the next paper better. Our conversations need substance—stuff we can think about, chew on, view from multiple perspectives, and then dig a bit deeper.
  • Good talk about teaching stretches out from experience to evidence. At this point, there’s not much new under the pedagogical sun. Somebody else has already thought about it and often been there gathering evidence. In the dynamic milieu of the classroom, few things are known definitively, but something is known about most things. There needs to be a commitment to find out and learn in conversations.
  • Arriving at a discussion prepared improves the quality of the exchange. Ideas need to have been thought about and questions framed. A good article, read beforehand, can give the discussion both structure and content. What makes a good article for discussion? It raises more questions than it answers. It presents a position that can be seen from different perspectives. It challenges conventional thinking. It doesn’t even need to be an article–a pithy quotation can take thinking to new and different places. This blog regularly highlights articles that have made me think. In Faculty Focus Premium, we are launching a new feature where we identify a good article for discussion and provide a set of questions readers can use to launch a productive exchange with colleagues or for personal reflections. Preview Reflections on Learning: Giving Students Assignments They Hate »
  • And the most fundamental tenet for good conversations about teaching: let the discourse be civil, agree to disagree, work to convince each other, debate, argue, but always grant others the freedom to decide for themselves.